We were delighted to have Michelle Gilmore, Design Director and Founder of design firm Neo, speak at a recent Behavioral Economics-NYC meetup about her cutting-edge work in the design of products, services and systems. Her presentation led to a lot of interest and discussion among those who were there and particularly among those who missed out. So, we asked Michelle to respond to some questions, which she graciously agreed to. If you have queries of your own, please leave a reply at the bottom of the page.
Here are our questions, and her answers:
- What’s the difference between design thinking and human-centered design?
I’m often asked to define these various disciplines or philosophies and I find the discussion to be largely futile. What’s useful is clarifying and setting an intention, then accurately labeling and communicating that. Effective teams within product, service and system design are in philosophical agreement in relation to what they need to achieve, why and the best way to ensure that intention is realised.
If the team lacks alignment or objectivity, design thinking won’t yield any better results than any other approach.
Design thinking is a set of methods that may result in the more effective development of products, services and systems. However, it also may not. If the team lacks alignment or objectivity, design thinking won’t yield any better results than any other approach. Think of it as a suite of tools (e.g. brainstorming, prototyping, testing etc). For me, the term ‘design thinking’ isn’t useful and means as much as ‘science thinking’ or ‘engineering thinking’ – discipline based thinking that isn’t overly prescriptive nor clear on intent.
Human-centered design (HCD) is slightly more useful, in that it demands a position that privileges the humans impacted and involved in the design, development and use of the product, service or system. HCD seeks to uncover and understand the humans in relation to their needs and interactions with the belief that doing this will lead to more successful product, service or system.
- You practice Behavioral Centered Design. What is it and how does it differ from the other two ideas?
I advocated for and practiced HCD for a long time, the better part of a decade. And it is useful, to a point. My concern is that by placing only one perspective at the ‘center’ and privileging this (human, business, technology or otherwise) skews decision-making. What works for certain people, may not work for others (e.g. customer needs are met, but employees are not) or something that meets human needs directly conflicts with business needs or broader government systems. Figure 2.1: HCD considers the humans, generally at an individual level i.e. what certain individuals want or need and the patterns that emerge amongst these individuals – rarely (in commercial contexts) are designers thinking about the aggregate impacts at group, community and society levels and what consequences for citizens might look like.
Behaviour Centered Design (BCD) seeks to draw insight from a diverse set of perspectives (customer, employee, citizen, product, business, technology etc) and understand these as levels of context change from the individual to the group and even the broader society, environment, economy, country and world.
Figure 2.2: BCD considers all perspectives, over all levels of context – ensuring to understand all perspectives (the x axis) across all levels, the y (the labels may change, for certain project context)
- Could you give us a concrete example of how you applied BCD to solve a hard problem? Why would HCD have been insufficient?
Let’s take aged, in-home aged care as an example. This is a very complex problem (from a live Neo project). There are people needing care, to ensure they can stay living in their own homes for as long as possible. There are care workers who deliver that care to them, businesses who sell the delivery of this care either through government programs or privately, and then there are the government who regulates and governs this process. This project was about understanding how to more effectively deliver this care, to those elderly citizens. HCD would have focused toward the elderly citizens, their families, the care workers delivering care and what these individuals needed and when. Useful, but only a sliver of the picture.
To properly understand and intervene, to make the service better (for all concerned – see figure 1.2, including the business provider) we needed to accurately and concurrently understand multiple (connected) behaviours not only of humans, but product, technology, business, government and so on (represented in figure 1.2 by the x and y axis). If we don’t do this we are making decisions from a limited pool of information and thus increasing project risks.
This is the intention of Behavioral-Centered Design; to capture an accurate understanding of the current state (across perspectives and levels of context) to inform a better, future state.
This is the intention of BCD; to capture an accurate understanding of the current state (across perspectives and levels of context) to inform a better, future state. This future state being necessarily more informed and therefore thought out, due to the multiple inputs explained above.
- You advocate for a thoughtful and fully transparent combination of objective evidence and subjective opinions as reasons for business decisions. What are the best practices? Is there a checklist for when a particular bit of evidence is relevant, useful and worth the cost and time needed to get it?
Humans largely operate from subjective positions, our experience informs our view and even those most self-aware struggle to set their biases aside. I believe that responsible decision-making demands balance, between subjective and objective inputs, to ensure that we are making decisions with diverse inputs, that counterbalance one another.
Figure 4.1: Making decisions from subjective or objective imbalance increases project risk
Figure 4.2: Balance means subjectivity is countered with objective (rigorous, verifiable) evidence and that evidence is couched in subjectivity (ethics, compassion, instinct and context)
I don’t know that there’s a ‘best practice’ in this context yet, I believe we have a lot to learn from scientific theory and process as well as legal diligence in relation to evidence gathering and presentation. In terms of a checklist, here are the ‘guidelines’ that we use when working to gather insight from humans in the field, within a qualitative investigation context:
Figure 4.3: An example of the ‘guidelines’ used to ensure evidence gathering from field based, qualitative investigation is as accurate and objective as possible
- While subjectivity and intuition drive many business decisions, many executives feel compelled to justify these decisions after the fact with highly rational and objective evidence. How do you view the proper use of intuition? Is the post-hoc rationalization a waste of time?
I’m not sure I’ve been lucky enough to experience ‘highly rational’ reasoning or the use of ‘objective evidence’ from executives. Largely, I see leadership making decisions (pre-launch) from subjective places (either consciously or subconsciously).
There is absolutely a place for intuition, as a designer, this is one of my greatest assets; but it’s my responsibility to accurately label it as that.
There is absolutely a place for intuition, as a designer, this is one of my greatest assets; but it’s my responsibility to accurately label it as that. It’s not backed up by anything other than my experience and talent, and if my clients and I make decisions based upon that we should do so with a very clear understanding that it is just that.
Post-hoc rationalisation can be useful when the unexpected occurs, an experiment might yield results that we didn’t plan for and therefore reflection and analysis is required. Sadly, post-hoc rationalisation is used by executives to justify what I would call imbalanced and irresponsible decision making.
- This (link) was my favorite slide from your presentation because it suggests how designers and decision makers should consider all relevant stakeholders’ perspectives. How can we use this matrix as a problem solving tool?
Use the perspectives and levels grid to see the whole, define where to focus and encourage broader conversations around consequence and what we don’t know/understand. Conduct investigation and run experiments across perspectives (the x axis) – meaning involve diverse opinions and uncover how products, technology and businesses behave, just as much as humans do. Do this through levels, an individual will behave differently to a group and individuals aggregate to form societies and communities – what are the impacts at these levels. I read this great article recently: AirBnB was used as example of something working at the individual level that perhaps didn’t consider community or society consequence.
- It has become fashionable to consider the long term social and environmental impacts of business decisions, I’m skeptical that for-profit businesses will give up profit opportunities or incur extra costs to be better citizens. How can BCD help make the case for sustainability?
Has it? I’m not sure it’s fashionable, perhaps it’s more of a marketing tool without the intention of action. I have to believe that businesses are going to be held accountable for the broader consequence of their decision making, when it comes to what they launch into the world. If you make a decision, and that impacts others in a negative way, you should be held accountable for that.
I also believe that profit and ethics don’t have to be at odds…
I also believe that profit and ethics don’t have to be at odds and that businesses can succeed through balanced decision making, which is what I’m advocating for here. I’m not suggesting that commercial objectives need to be dampened. Rather, it is the opposite. In the aged care project, we balance economic business needs and realities with other perspectives.
- It seems to me that BCD requires unlearning some old habits and misconceptions before replacing them with better ones. When your evidence led education company, Train, instructs organizations and teams, how do you do this? What measurable benefits can companies expect?
Firstly, businesses and specifically, their leaders, need to believe that understanding a diverse set of behaviours across perspectives and levels will lead to greater success. This means that their opinion may be disproved through evidence, but they commit to that being acceptable (if not encouraged) and foster a culture in which that approach can thrive.
Train, the education arm of Neo, teaches organisations how to lead with evidence, derived from the people that their products, services and systems impact. Here’s an example of some cultural guidelines (developed by Train) that enable an evidence based, BCD approach.
Figure 8.1: An example of ‘ cultural guidelines’ used to align teams and leadership before embarking on an evidence led, BCD approach
All answers are Copyright © 2018 Neoteny Pty Ltd | All rights reserved. All images courtesy Neoteny Pty Ltd.
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